I’m moving up the track in the wrong direction. I start at the finish. At the end rather than the beginning. As I begin my slow jog, the white strings that line the full length of each lane rise gradually from ground level to their eventual height of almost a metre. They are fed through small loops at the top of white stakes set ten metres apart. It creates a distinctive visual effect, a sort of string art on a large scale. The sprint track is seemingly lifted above the rest of the field. It becomes like an athletic altar, a place of sprinting worship.
I have just shaken hands with the Premier John Cain and various other local dignitaries, who all look very pleased to be there. I just wished they would all get out the way and let me get on with things.
I feel remarkably calm, considering; Considering this race is the culmination of many childhood dreams. I am fit, strong, and think I can win. Am I sure I can win?
As I jog and walk up the track the commentator is summarizing my summer’s form and previous performances:
“He run (sic) second in the Rye Gift in January of this year and recently won the Avoca Gift in the fast time of 11.90 seconds. He won his heat comfortably on Saturday in the time of 12.28 seconds and his semi in the time of 12.19…….”
And then it came “……and his father won this race back in 1955”. I always love hearing that.
It is absurd that my predominant thought is not the imminent race but a wish that I was a bit taller. I wish my track suit pants, provided by the sponsors of the race, weren’t dragging on the ground. Don’t they have a smaller pair? Why am I so calm?
When you first get to Stawell it seems thoroughly unremarkable. Driving in along the Western Highway from Melbourne you pass a petrol station, a collection of lonely looking motel cabins and a hotch potch of small semi-industrial businesses. A sign says “Welcome to Stawell” above a picture of a few blokes desperately throwing themselves at a finish tape, and “Home of the Stawell Gift” underneath. That’s your only clue that this town has something special about it.
It’s always dry up here. Even after rain this town looks and feels dry. The air sucks the moisture out of your lips and the local cockies screech with parched throats. Gum trees scratch a living out of the sandy compacted soil and patiently wait for the next rain. They are good at being patient. They even look patient.
These trees are magnificent. Not awe-inspiring magnificent like Uluru, but rather simple-magnificent like a foraging wombat. They stand humble but proud despite their blotchy and dilapidated appearance. Their role is to act as homes for the local wildlife not to dominate the skyline like their rainforest cousins. Possums, koalas, spiders, snakes, hawks, and various local rodents all reside in these multicultural council flats. But they are also tough practical survivors and will drop limbs in the still heat of the day, if the going gets too tough. The only warnings will be the same high-pitched squeal a rusty dunny door makes, followed by a crack as the branch lets go. The dropped limbs gather around the tree base defeated and rejected. But part of it all.
Looking over Stawell is the majestic Grampians mountain range. It sprawls across the horizon like a giant in deep slumber and changes from brown to blue to black as the day grows old. The Grampians reflect the mood of the surrounding area. During a storm the giant will seemingly rise up all black and purple and lash the landscape with vicious wind and rain, and then will shrink away again and lie down peacefully like a cat on a sunny window sill.
From time to time I’ve found myself staring at the Grampians in pure wonder. Not only do they change colour across the day but they also seem to change shape as if the sleeping giant moves in his dreams.
I love this country. It has a powerful resilience and a beautiful ugliness. I love that it is so ancient but so familiar and I love that it is so important to me and my family. I feel a part of it and humbled that it has let me in on just a few of its secrets. It is my country.
On my arrival every year the town seems to greet me with a quiet nod and a tip of the hat. There is no fanfare. There doesn’t need to be. It sits comfortably in a landscape scarred by old gold mines and erosion. Nothing moves quickly, not even the birds in flight. Cars and four wheel drives meander around the streets barely above a fast walking pace and slow conversations are conducted with long pauses in the shade of a tree. Life seems to unwind without pretension.
The locals reside in a typically rural collection of homes. Stately weatherboard houses with return verandahs shaded by a peppercorn tree share the streets with asbestos sheet houses that boil in the sun. There are also newer brick townhouses, probably built by those who have come into town off their farms looking to find a comfortable place to see out their days.
Up at the top end of town is the main shopping mall. The footpaths have plaques embedded in them naming the Stawell Gift winners since 1878. This is the Hollywood avenue of stars, Stawell style. Simple concrete blocks with the year and a name engraved into them are plonked in the brick-paved walkway. There are still a few strange gaps. Apparently families of previous winners don’t get a plaque unless they pay for it. The Stawell Gift has always been bigger than the individual.
This place seems entirely happy in its own skin.
Making camp I try to hammer the pegs of my tent into the ground and I curse and moan that the ground is so hard. Droplets of sweat appear on my forehead as I labour. The kids begin exploring the immediate surrounds by climbing up and falling out of trees, poking sticks down mysterious looking holes, or scratching an area out of the dust for our camp fire. The local ants appear out of their nest wanting to know what all the commotion is about. They quickly spread across their kingdom searching for the threat. Soon I’ll be sharing my camp with them. We’ll come to the usual agreement; I’ll let them have some of my honey and bread crumbs if they promise not to bite.
As you wander past Central Park on Good Friday you might hear the starter testing his gun for the Easter Weekend athletics carnival, or the familiar “tink tink tink” sound when hammer connects with metal pegs as ground staff quietly erect the marshals’ tent and the judges’ marquee. Perhaps the commentator for the event is testing the PA or a few runners are chatting as they go about their preparations. If it’s late enough in the afternoon some local kids will be out selling the programs for Saturday’s races.
“Pro-ooo-gram” is their natural call.
But that’s about it. There won’t be any hustle and bustle.
I’m at the top of the track waiting for the other runners to arrive. The commentator is introducing them with his “he run third here and he run second there” statistics as they jog, walk, or do a show-off sprint up the track. Looking down my lane, lined as it is by the beautiful white strings, I’m terrified and exhilarated. I start to flick my legs, one at a time, as sprinters do. Flick of the left leg, flick of the right, flick of the left, run on the spot. Now my heart is really racing.
Nothing else matters at the moment. I’m in a surreal place. This is the final of the Stawell Gift.
I’m trying to enjoy the moment as I was advised to do.
“Suck in every moment” I was told by a previous Gift winner, “because it may not come around again”.
But the moments won’t stand still. Now they’re drowning in a nerve soup. I set my blocks, get in a few practice starts to ensure they’re steady, and stand ready for Mr. Starter to commence his race instructions.
My lane is a stairway to heaven. It’s my lane. I own it. I can’t wait to hear the gun and get stuck into these blokes around me. Geez I’m really pumped now.
Near the centre of town is the footy ground. I wish it could talk. On one side is the picturesque timber grandstand, built over a century ago. It houses the public bar and the St Johns Ambulance medical rooms. On the other side is a pair of brick grandstands designed and built with nothing but function in mind. They have all the charm of an industrial estate.
Every Easter in the shadows of the old timber grandstand old men congregate. They talk about old times from beneath old hats and through old teeth. Some carry souvenirs from wars with the empty arms of jumpers or shirts tucked into the tops of their trousers (though their numbers are dwindling fast). Some hold a green can in their slightly shaky hand and guide it up to their lips as if they’re parking a giant container ship. Others mutter to each other like old blokes do and laugh and cough about their glory days as athletes. They’re old runners.
Old pros don’t call each other by name, but by initials. It’s just the way it is, part of the mystery of pro running that is dying with this aging generation.
“Ahhh the great JK!”
Usually these greetings are accompanied by a pat on the rump with a rolled up program.
The bookmakers take up residence under the shade of the oak trees at the finish end of the Gift track. On Easter Saturday morning they gather and form a circle just like the settler’s wagons in the old American westerns did to protect against Indian attack. In a short time they are. Some punters are in the know, most wish they were in the know, but all will be hell bent on cleaning the bookies out.
“Heats of the Gift!” yell the bookies, like weekend stall owners selling cheap jewellery. “Heats of the Gift. Each way. Heats of the Gift!”
Blokes in peeked caps with large knowledgeable noses roam around sniffing the air. A lot of money has gone on at the call of the card on Friday night so the major plunges may have already occurred, but still the punters and bookies eye each other off like dogs passing in the street.
To the side and behind the bookies is a small timber platform. On it is conducted the highland dancing tournament. It’s been held every year that I can remember. A melancholy bagpiper plays and young girls, costumed in tartans and kilts, dance on their toes. They flick their legs out as their arms remain almost motionless at their sides. It’s a strange, noiseless dance that confounds a modern world. But it’s what they know; what they love. People sitting in deck chairs around the platform applaud politely as the girls show off their discipline and skills. It’s very quaint, very unobtrusive, very Stawell.
The starter calls us all behind the scratch line to give us his instructions. I’ve heard it many times before but he commands your attention. You must give it to him.
“Any runner leaving before the gun will be penalized a metre” he barks.
He tells us to settle over the blocks as quickly as possible and then he gives us a final warning. “Don’t leave before the gun !”
He disappears behind us to make the final preparations. We’re left to our own thoughts, like diggers in the trenches waiting to hop the bags. My heart is pounding so hard I can see my beautiful green silk vest moving to its rhythm. I know there are other blokes around me but I’m so focused on my lane they may as well be a thousand miles away. I have something to do. Something important. When that gun goes off, run like hell.
“Walk to your blocks!”
A deathly quiet settles on the whole arena. Silence. The people are enveloped by it, holding their breath, watching from any vantage point they can get. On Dad’s shoulders as he stands on his toes looking over the hats in front of him. Everyone does the best they can to get a sight.
I get on my blocks. My silk vest is still dancing in time with my thumping heartbeat. It was doing a waltz but now it’s doing the rumba. This is intense. I take a look up and set my gaze on the narrow lane of grass. My lane. My head drops, I’m waiting for the starter to give the order. I feel like a convict waiting for the hangman to pull the leaver. It’s an agonizing wait. Relax, concentrate, breathe, remain steady.
“Seeeeeeet!” screams the starter.
The crack of the gun. Run!
We blast out of the silence and out of our blocks. Arms and legs flay about searching for power and speed, accompanied by grunts and sharp breaths that sound like air bursting out of a car tyre. I am alone in my battle with these blokes. There is no recognition of a crowd watching, only a sense that those immediately around me are straining just like I am, reaching for the prize. This is competition at its rawest; brutal and unforgiving and bloody fantastic.
Rod Kirsopp is next to me and a bit in front. It’s not the fast start I wanted but I feel I can control him as the race goes on. The middle part of my race is normally where I can split it open. Breathe.
It’s just Kirsopp and me. Out here on our own. None of the others will get near us. This is what I expected, but I didn’t expect to be chasing him down. I’m struggling to bring my race together. Where’s my momentum?
Still I’m a chance. The race nears its crescendo and all I can hear is a loud, sharp “SSSHHHHHHHH” next to me as my opponent goes through his own physical and emotional torture. I’ve lifted but so has Kirsopp. The finish approaches too quickly. Just need to get past him. He’s strong. Bloody strong.
From behind there’s a flash of colour; red colour. Must be Singleton. He’s fast, a blur out of the corner of my eye. I can’t hold him off. This wasn’t supposed to happen. Breathe. Kirsopp is still ahead of me, but Singleton has headed us both. He’s swooped on us swiftly and skillfully like champions do. Winners seem to be able to get that lift, that extra push to the line as if the hand of God has decided they are the ones. Singleton is running like a winner. He is free of strain, free of turmoil, free of spirit. No one could beat him today.
And I’ve run out of room.
I reach the gate;s that frame, the famous finish at Stawell but I run through them without any intent or energy, like a gentle spring breeze through an open window .No arms raised in triumph, no ecstatic laughing and untold joy.
I feel like I’m at my own funeral. It’s a lonely place to be despite having people patting me on the back and saying bad luck. Some just stand off a little way and give me a nod of support. I see my uncle. He raises his hand. It’s a simple moving gesture. Frank knows how this feels. He ran third behind Barry Foley and Trevor McGregor in 1970.
It’s hard to have perspective when it all comes to nothing. I’ve just gone from a place of extraordinary anxiety, of heightened awareness the like of which I have never experienced before, to this; sitting on the grass nursing the immense elephant of defeat on my lap. It has an extraordinary weight that goes way beyond the physical exhaustion of the race. There is no relief. I can’t run over to the other competitors and say “Race you again” like I could in the school yard. There is no alternative but to suck the loss in with all its bitterness. It’s a foul taste.
The crowd is cheering and applauding, the winner is surrounded by well-wishers and media. I’m not feeling jealous or anger at not being in his place. Good luck to him.
The losers can please themselves.
It has taken many years to understand what happened that day. I’ve watched a tape of the race since then, but it has always felt like I’m watching someone else. It’s only recently that it has all started to make sense. I lost that race before I had even made the trip to Stawell that Easter. It was lost in my own impetuosity, my own unintelligent, youthful exuberance. It was lost in my lack of respect. I thought that to win was simply a matter of running fast. I should have known better.
My father’s prophetic words have haunted me for a long time. “You’ll run a courageous third”, he told me some months before the race as I informed him that I was ready to have a crack at winning. “You’re not ready.”
He knew what Stawell had in store for me.
This is a place and a race born out of hardship and struggle. Just as only a few found the treasures of gold so only a few have grasped the spoils of victory. It’s not sufficient to turn up and run fast because the Stawell Gift has a habit of bringing down the show ponies, the impatient and the immature. It leaves many competitors beaten and rejected like the discarded limbs of the gum trees.
And the people who watch the race understand it. They cheer with gusto when the roughie emerges out of the pack at the 100metre mark to dash into history. They barrack hard for the ordinary bloke, because that’s what this race is about. Those who know Stawell embrace its quaintness, its toughness, and its quirky place in Australian sport.
In my mind it’s now quite simple and clear. To win at Stawell one must first understand Stawell.
This sprint cannot be rushed.
Dips O’Donnell will be attending the inaugural Footy Almanac Stawell Gift Dinner at the Waterside Hotel, Melbourne, on Wed April 16, 6.30 for 7pm. $75. Bookings essential. firstname.lastname@example.org The dinner will feature 1950 winner Ken Trewick, now 88, and a fine story-teller.